The Phallus of Balzac; The Balzacian Metaphor


[Balzac] procured a stick, as thick as a club and encrusted with turquoises, about which he spread the strangest rumors, for instance, that he kept in the knob a portrait of a mysterious mistress in the costume of Eve, who belonged to the highest circles of the aristocracy. When he entered the box of the “Tigers” at the Theatre des Italiens, this Hercules club in his hand (which had cost him seven hundred francs that he never paid), the whole audience stared at it hypnotically, and Madame de Girardin was inspired by the remarkable object to write a novel called La canne de Monsier de Balzac.

Stefan Zweig, Balzac.

This phallus, this manliness, also produced the following first paragraph, the beginning of THE HIDDEN MASTERPIECE, which I now reveal from my magician’s box of rabbits—

On a cold morning in December, towards the close of the year 1612, a
young man, whose clothing betrayed his poverty, was standing before
the door of a house in the Rue des Grands-Augustine, in Paris. After
walking to and fro for some time with the hesitation of a lover who
fears to approach his mistress, however complying she may be, he ended
by crossing the threshold and asking if Maitre Francois Porbus were
within. At the affirmative answer of an old woman who was sweeping out
one of the lower rooms the young man slowly mounted the stairway,
stopping from time to time and hesitating, like a newly fledged
courier doubtful as to what sort of reception the king might grant

I haven’t read the rest of the story and I couldn’t tell you what it was about; I want to examine here, in witty brevity, the two metaphors that Honoré deftly inserts inside his plain (but not in any way simple!) paragraph. There is great force here, great momentum which carries the eyes forward like a charging war-horse, but I think the spikes that gouge the horse’s flanks are the two metaphors—those unifications of wholly separate universes, metaphors, metáfora!, the way in which a hummingbird may possess the plumage of a rainforest, etc., etc.

The man clicks his heels back and forth along the grimy cobblestones “with the hesitation of a lover who fears to approach his mistress, however complying she may be.” Complex emotion! Fear and confidence stirred together as in a vat of thick chocolate pudding! Obsession, sensuality! This first metaphor may have nothing to do with the plot of the story, our nameless character might not be after a woman in the slightest, but the metaphor enriches the flavor of this dark concoction—the passion of the anxious lover shines through the plain language like the gleam of the sun reflected on the surface of our luscious desert. We lick our spoons, we dip them inside, we devour.

Squeaking up the stairs, creaking on the grain of the bending wood, our hero hesitates “like a newly fledged courier doubtful as to what sort of reception the king might grant him.” Our second metaphor exists outside the narrative but binds itself to the first as a magnet floating in orbit crashes into a piece of space-junk, unified as one!, and establishing various plot-related details that need not be explored here—this metaphor, this train of words separated by a single like, is a one-way window opening on another world, where we watch, if only for a split second, the equally-nameless courier as he ascends a softly-carpeted staircase in gold-trimmed livery. Not for a moment does he suspect our gaze, and in his world the Balzac of his own narrative compares his circumstance to that of a rag-clad man pacing anxiously before the door of a house in Paris, or a lover frightened of his own mistress.

An idea, a striving for the solidification of beauty, unites these three nameless existences, makes them one being, a character whose purely verbal world tastes of chocolate when the eyes—those tongues that drool for words!—lick the translated letters.

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